Taking Your Ball and Going Home

Who owns online communities?

First, a case study.

Jeff Harrington, the founder of New New Music has been pushed too far / is having a strop. He’s renamed the site to “New Music Shit Hole” and deleted a lot of the content. He sort of explains why in a post, in which he complains about trolling. The money quote is, “The big picture is that this online new music scene is basically 200 guys in their basements with MIDI synthesizers.”
What’s mostly surprising about this development is the timing, as the community had been surprisingly active lately. Last week, they released a compilation CD which they were selling will all proceeds going to benefit Haiti. Shortly before that, there was some sort of contest in which a great number of one minute pieces were created. The site actually was mostly populated by hobbyists (in their basement with synthesizers), which is why I wandered off. But aesthetically, some of the stuff that was going on there was worth paying attention to.
On the other hand, the number of people in the world who actually have interesting things to say about music is very small. The number of people who have interesting musical thoughts is less small, but putting those thoughts into words is notoriously difficult and can distract attention from putting those thoughts into music. So when composers (or wannabe composers) start talking about stuff, they most often start talking about sort of side issues like technology or gossip about composers or economic issues related to music or some kind of ideological whatever.
Tech talk abounds on the internet. It should be avoided if you actually want to make anything. Hobbyists don’t tend to have any good gossip and their economic interests are sometimes contrary to mine. As for ideology, well, this is probably where the flame wars came from.
So, in frustration, Mr Harrington renamed the site and deleted a bunch of content. There were no other moderators, and possibly no backups. The site, which was clearly valuable enough to have been doing projects even last week, is dead.

Community Projects are Hard

I worked for a couple of years on one for my day job, back when I was a music hobbyist and then, after enough time has passed for me to kind of forget the horror, I spent a year or so helping moderate a high traffic community on live journal. There is practical advice that helps: Have a team of moderators, enough so that if one or two of you wander a way for a bit, things keep going. Replace moderators when they burn out, which will take two years max. Have rules against stupid flamey crap and enforce them. Ban disruptive people – even if somebody is a god of music, it doesn’t mean they can participate well in a community.
One person trying to run a large community site is pretty much a guarantee that it will go up in flames. Which it did. And with it went the content. But any number of other things could have gone wrong. Ning, the company that hosts it, could have inexplicably decided to shut down this particular site (maybe they’re uptown). Or they could have decided to cease operations entirely. These scenarios expose a fundamental flaw in the way that community sites are structured.

Pyramid Shapes

A lot of people make content, but a few people own the distribution of it. I’m not talking about copyright, since a lot of the more casual content, like playlists, that populate this kind of site shouldn’t be under copyright anyway. But users spend time creating these and their discussions and comments and this is what actually forms the substance of the community. Yet, a very small number of people – the admins, the moderators, the hosting company – are actually the ones directly in control of the integrity of the content. The power of a community is it’s distributed user base, but all of it ends up concentrated in a single point of weakness, vulnerable to the whims of a few.
Web pages make for very nice front ends, and they can be a great way to organize how content is accessed, but in terms of actually working well with actual people who are not being paid to run them: usenet has a way better model. All the pre-web stuff was better designed for working with communities and had robust implementations. IRC and usenet are distributed. The content lives across many servers. There is no master copy. No one person can destroy a group. And yet groups can still be moderated.
The web was originally exciting because of inline images and some formatting stuff. It looked pretty. This might not sound like much, but back in those days, you couldn’t open a windows-created word file on a macintosh computer because there was nothing in common for different platforms of home users (a situation we are happily skipping back towards with phones, but that’s another post). The web let you actually all look at the same document. And it had pictures!
There’s a lot of reason to love that. We can all have our own little space which is ours and put up pictures of our pets and it was centralized in that we controlled our own space. Corporations loved the control aspect. They could entirely run some service and get users to pay for it and show them ads and if any user becomes annoying, they can be expelled. It’s sort of feudal, but, ooh, pictures! The major trend of web 2.0 is not user-generated content, since the early days of the web were all user generated. The major trend is centralization and corporate control. This transfers ownership of our content to a much smaller groups of people or individuals. They may treat it appropriately, or they might get really tired of trolls and delete all of it.
Everything old is new again in 2010. We need to go back to usenet and use it the basis for how community back ends work. If Net New Music wants to get going again, they should probably reconvene there.

Music Discovery

Ok, it’s no secret that most radio stations are kind of disappointing, especially commercial ones. If you live in an urban area, you might have an awesome local radio station that actually plays good music. You should listen! However, alas, most of the good music might be on 10PM – 2AM on Thursday nights. Or maybe you live some place with Clear Channel, Sony and nobody else? How do you find out about music?

Pandora – for Americans

There’s a couple of very interesting online services to aid you in this task, with sort of opposite philosophies. If you live in the US, you can try out something called Pandora. (Outside, the US, scroll down) Alas, it doesn’t work outside of the US, but if you can get it, it’s actually pretty cool. It’s got a very top-down approach. You tell it a song that you like and it guesses what songs you might like based on that one song. You can refine the results by telling it when it’s correct or wrong. It’s an interesting way to find out about music within (or near) a genre that you like.
How it works is that expert musicologists listen to stuff and classify it. This piece of music is electronic, is 130 bmp, has glitch elements, has IDM influences, uses minor key harmonies, blah, blah, blah. It can alternately make you feel smart when you understand what they’re talking about, or it can make you think they’re smarter than you. They don’t tell you everything about a track, because that would be giving away secrets! But it’s not secret that part of what I like about this is that it provides jobs to people with graduate degrees in music. We need the work!
So, you say you like Tag by Agf and it guesses you might also like a few tracks by Boards of Canada. Cool! But, part of the shortcomings of this is that you can’t give it more exact feedback. I had a Riot Grrl station set up, which meant I was pretty much only interested in female vocalists, aside from Huggy Bear and the few other Riot Grrl groups with male singers. It just did not get it. And I certainly couldn’t tell it that I didn’t want to hear sexist lyrics. I could only give it a lot of thumbs down and hoped it would guess that’s what they all had in common.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting and I would use it again if they offered it in the UK.


Where Pandora is top-down, organized by people who are smarter than you, Last.FM is bottom up, organized automagically using some smart computer algorithms and it’s user base. Pandora is like Yahoo, or the Open Directory Project and Last.FM is like Google.
Last.FM is more general and can be used in many different ways. A typical user pattern would be that you go install the spy software called a scrobbler. This software spies on what you’re listening to and reports back to last.fm. Ok, it’s moderately creepy. However, you can see when it’s running and when it’s not. When you don’t want people to know that you’re secretly listening to Esperanto Subgrunda, you can turn it off. Note, also, that Pandora is also tracking what you listen to. If you want to keep your listening habits secret, then you’re not going to be able to use any music discovery tool that I know of.
Ok, so you have last.fm installed and you’re listening to Madonna, Justin Timberlake and The Coup. Based on that, it’s created a sort of radio station of stuff you might like. This doesn’t happen because smart people have noted that these artists have a pop sensibility, make heavy use of sampling, have major key and pentatonic harmonies and have a beat you can dance to. No, this happens because a bunch of other users also these same three artists and also like a bunch of other musically-related acts. The correlation happens automatically based on people’s listening habits. Nice!
Additionally, you can find your friends on the service (I’m celesteh1). You can go listen to their radio station and see what they like. Maybe mock them behind their back. And find out they like some cool band that you’d never heard of. Boom, musical discovery based on your friends. It’s like the old days of tape trading, but less interactive. In addition to being able to check out your friends, it gives you a list of users who have closely related tastes to yours. You can scope out their stations and also find stuff.
Finally, you can use it like Pandora in that you can just ask for stuff based on an artist or song that you like. It generates a play list and will play it in a web browser or in it’s own client. The client doesn’t have ads and uses a lot less CPU than a web browser, so it’s much less resource stealing to have the last.fm client than it is to have pandora in a browser. But since all the playlists are generated based on what other users have listened to, they can lack subtlety and can be way off for lesser-known acts. I almost never use this feature. However, for example, the similar to Maggi Payne station is really interesting, so it’s definitely worth checking out.
Ok, I don’t know about you, but I hate making choices. It is possible to use last.fm and pandora at the same time. This is left as an exercise to the reader. Or, if there’s interest, I’ll do a follow up.
Finally, let’s admit it, you think your musical taste is stellar, cutting edge, amazing. You secretly relate to Indy Rock Pete. Ok, maybe that’s just me. But you can get some sort of listener creds through last.fm. You can show of how cool you are. (White people like that.) It’s appealing, at least at first. And then you miss the new Madonna album or SexyBack and it’s all downhill from there. (But seriously, the Confessions on a Dance Floor is awesome. Timberlake? Not so much. But still somehow compelling.) Take it to the bridge.

For Musicians

Ok, what about artists? People are listening to our sol la ti, so we should get some do re mi, right? Indeed. Pandora will only consider CDs with UPC codes. And they don’t take everything. “Top down” means curated. But they do pay royalties. Anyway, you can be on both. If you want to be on Pandora, mail them a CD. The pay according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
Last.fm keeps track of everything that people report to it. If you listen to that mp3 of your best friend’s garage band while scrobbling, they know about it. Which means that they know about a lot more stuff than does Pandora. If you have mp3s in circulation or a released CD, they probably already know about you. Go look yourself up on the service. Maybe they already have a bio and a picture for you. If they do, it’s because some friend or fan set it up – or because you’re already famous. If they don’t, you can add that stuff. (and terrible candid shots of your musician friends. ahahahaha!) You can also upload some of your own music.
Last.fm has a plan in place to pay royalties, but have not yet started to do so. However even in this pre-royalty time, it’s in your best interest to give them a couple of tracks for the same reason that it’s in your best interest to put some tracks up on your website. The point is to get people listening to your music through a sort of word-of-mouth(-like) buzz. People see that a friend or musical neighbor has been listening to you. They get curious. They try to listen also. Make sure there’s something there for them.

Fine, I’ll Stop Listening, You Win

The RIAA is now suing some guy for ripping CDs that he purchased. He’s not sharing them on the internet, he just loaded them onto his own computer to listen to them. The major labels have apparently decided that it’s a crime to put music that you paid for onto your ipod.

It wasn’t enough that they’re trying to take financial aid away from college kids. I mean, those kids were violating intellectual property rights. Taking away their financial aid is seriously an over-reaction to that and despicable, but at least the kids did something iffy. But this latest guy didn’t do anything wrong at all.
The RIAA is a member organization controlled by the major record labels. Apparently, their policy is now that they don’t want us to listen to music that we buy from them.
Fair enough. If they don’t want us to listen to their music, we can stop.
I’m toying with the idea of throwing away everything I have from a major label, but I probably won’t. I mean, I like my CDs, that’s why I bought them. And, unfortunately, some of them are probably out on majors.
But I’m completely serious about the not buying anything new on majors. This is the first xmas since I was 13 that I didn’t get any music. I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t receive it. If the major labels don’t want me to listen, I won’t. There’s plenty of great stuff out there on indie labels. I’m not hurting for CDs. Other Minds has two new releases and several of my buddies have given me their latest albums. And, of course, there are podcasts full of great music.
All of this is what’s so confusing about the major labels being such assholes. It’s not like there aren’t alternatives. They seem to think they’re Ma Bell, when that kind of monopoly hasn’t existed for years and years. Do they want to destroy themselves? Have they given up on life? Should all the record execs get on prozac right away?
There are some serious issues of power and control at play. What’s at stake is our share in our culture. Between DRM and IP and other legal wranglings, corporations want to own every aspect of our culture. They want to control information. Remember that thing where Sony installed spyware on people’s computers through music CDs. These guys think they own our computers. If we don’t secure net neutrality, they’ll try to choke off the internet as well. (Note that libertarian hero and scary, racist mofo Ron Paul is against net neutrality.)
Briefly, right now all data traversing the internet is treated equally. ISPs, who are often owned by RIAA member companies, want to make some packets privileged over others. If you go to their website, it loads fast. If you go to a competitor, it loads slowly or not at all. If they want to control all music, then it’s likely that net-surfing customers would have to pay extra to be allowed the privilege of getting to podcasts.
Which is to say that boycott is not enough, because in some sense they are Ma Bell. Does your elected representative support net neutrality?


Well, not quite. Oops. They still suck though and do make the claim that you shouldn’t rip CDs for ipod use.

Feminism and FLOSS


Let’s start this with some definitions. (No, this isn’t about feminism and gum disease (although that might also be interesting).) FLOSS stands for “Free (Libre) Open Source Software.” As they say, that’s “free” as in speech, not “free” as in beer. FLOSS refers to software projects in which participation is more open. Users can get copies of the source code (this is the stuff that programmers make. you can change it and thus change the program) and do whatever they like with it, as long as what they distribute is also FLOSS. This is what we mean by “free.”
However, to be clear, the distribution model of FLOSS means it is often also available without monetary exchange. Users can go to a website and get tons of cool software for their computer, including an operating system. You can get computer hardware and never pay for any of the programs on it and do this without piracy or stealing. And if you have technical skills and really like a piece of software, you can even add features to it. Or, you can ask for the feature and somebody might even listen to you and do it.

Every piece of software has a certain community aspect. The users are a group of people who care about the software. Thus, all software has some community. But proprietary software owned by big companies can afford to ignore this community or even work against them. Many of the mis-features in the new version of windows were added at the bequest of media companies and are contrary to the needs and desires of the user community. This dynamic is less present in FLOSS software because the user community has direct access to the very essence of the software. If something unpopular gets stuck in, they can take it back out. Thus FLOSS software is inherently democratic, existing squarely within the free marketplace of ideas. The users own the software.
Therefore FLOSS empowers the user. This dynamic tends to have implications in the social dynamic among users. Many FLOSS programs have online resources to help users and the community will often offer help and support to each other. For example a FLOSS thing I use has an IRC group (a chat room). Many users log in and keep it open in the background. If they have a problem, they can ask about it. If they notice somebody else is having a problem that they can solve, they might jump in and help.
Many of the implications and goals of FLOSS have an obvious commonality with feminist goals. In a more concise summary, my internet friend Paula (aka Bastubis) wrote:

I think FLOSS offers better possibilities [than proprietary software] for feminist use because:

  • it’s community owned
  • mutual and self-help model
  • collaborative
  • empowers the user

Women Developers

Despite all the commonality between FLOSS and feminism, it’s still the case that only around 1.5% of FLOSS developers are women. Therefore, we can conclude that while FLOSS has a commonality with feminism, it is not, in and of itself, inherently feminist or women’s participation would be higher.
Ironically, some of the very openness of FLOSS may be part of the issue. All groups have hierarchies and power imbalances. In some groups, hierarchies are formalized and in others they are not. Informal groupings are fine for consciousness raising or within groups of friends, but they can become problematic in groups that are taking more direct action. For example, let’s say a CR group decides to act on a specific issue. One person might have an idea for a protest, but, since this is a new direction for the group, before presenting it to the group as a whole, she runs it by a few friends within the group who offer suggestions. Over time, in-groups and out-groups develop, where a core group of friends discusses things before brining it to the group as a whole. This dynamic can quickly become toxic and it’s why direct action groups often have specific handbooks for how to organize themselves. You cannot try to right a power imbalance unless you first recognize that it exists.
Ironically, sometimes even more oppressive hierarchy can be better for reaching feminist goals. About 20% of corporate developers are women. Corporations invest energy in trying to recruit women and trying to avoid the appearance of sexism (to some extent). This is not because corporations are good, far from it, but because we have been able to use the legal system to force them to be less discriminatory. However, turning the legal system on FLOSS is probably not the best solution to the lack-of-diversity problem, alas.
So, given all of this, what causes women’s non-participation in FLOSS? Well, most FLOSS stuff occurs on the internet. I remember the good old days of “nobody knows if you’re a dog on the internet” and how the invisibility of identity would lead to a truly colorblind, genderblind utopia. There’s multiple problems with this ideal, which can explain where it went wrong. First of all, access issues meant that the majority of (english-speaking) people on the internet were white men. This lead users to assume that anybody they were talking to was a white men. Secondly, anoninimity causes people to act like assholes. A few assholes could spew racist, sexist, classist garbage until populations that were sensitive to this would leave. The answer to this is not to do it in reverse because it’s a terrible model of how to behave and because it just won’t work. White guys are priviliged and this makes them less vulnerable to this kind of attack. So they’re in a position where they can exert this power and have no negative consequences for it. Probably, these are people who don’t feel terribly empowered in their daily lives. In the offline world, most gay bashers are teen boys who are alarmed about their own sexuality.
Informal hierarchies on online forums, coupled with conditions created by institutionalized oppression, therefore can create an environment which is explicitly hostile to women (and other minority groups). Because everyone is equally empowered, nobody is empowered to stop harassers, trolls, and vocal bigots. Indeed, a completely open forum is a situation where a troll (or a spammer) can destroy a community, by creating so much garbage that any meaningful communication is effectively drowned out. The way to solve this problem is to create a more formalized hierarchy, where certain users are granted the power to ban certain users or remove certain posts. These super-empowered users are called moderators. They keep spammers and trolls at bay. There are more refined models of moderation, such as rotating moderatorship or systems where comments are voted on and given certain scores (so users can elect to see only high-scoring comments).
However, moderation is only as good as the moderator(s). If the moderators don’t care about sexism, an informal hierarchy based on sex can still exist. These partially unmoderated portions of the internet are often explicitly hostile to women. The moderated sections are less hostile, but there’s still the nobody-knows-if-you’re-a-dog invisibility. Everyone around you is (apparently) a white man. This does not create a welcoming environment.
So what to do about women in FLOSS? As the hierarchies are most often informal, a legal remedy is probably not the answer. Therefore, I think there are two approaches we should explore. One is to work with prominent FLOSS organizations, like GNU, to put women in high profile positions. I think the Ubuntu group is probably receptive to this. This would create a situation where women FLOSS contributors are more visible.
The other approach is affinity groups. Having groups of women working together on FLOSS creates visibility and an a community which is specifically welcoming to them, potentially attracting more women to become active in FLOSS.
I think there’s also a financial issue Do FLOSS developers get paid for their work? (Frankly, I don’t want to add to the amount of unpaid labor already extracted from women.) Programmers in open source may be living off of donations to their projects. They may be funded by corporations and foundations. Some just do it in their free time. The grass-roots kind of FLOSS that we’re talking about is more in the free-time category of development. I’m guessing that the men who do free time development have some sort of infrastructure to support them. They’re students. Or they’re married and have a woman picking up after them or they have a maid (a woman picking up after them). By contrast, women who are not students usually have to pick up after themselves.


The ideals of FLOSS have a great synchronicity with non-profit enterprises, but if we want women who are in non-profits, and thus already getting low pay, to take up FLOSS development, it needs to be part of their job, not something for their free time. The good news about this is that there is funding out there.
If we want women who are in non-profits to take up FLOSS tools, we need to give them training and support, face to face, through affinity groups. The money they save on software licenses will make it worth their time. Also, we as developers need to make sure that the tools we give them are self-explanatory. If they want to get a volunteer to come in for an afternoon and do something, they want hir to just be able to sit down and do it, without having to spend too much time learning the system.


FLOSS and feminism could and should work together. To ensure that this happens on the development side, we need to push for both visibility and anti-sexist moderation policies. We can create visibility by getting women into visible formally hierarchical organizations that already exist and by creating our own such organizations. On the user side, we should specifically offer support through affinity groups, so that women have an explicitly welcoming environment where they can learn about FLOSS tools. Furthermore, we should specifically reach out to feminist non-profits as a means to help them become more effective and thus advance the cause of feminism in the brick and mortar world, as well as online.

In other news, I’ve been IMing stangers with webcams. I like IMing strangers. It gives me a chance to practice my Esperanto. But the webcam thing, I do not get. First, let’s talk angles and lighting. If the webcam is top of the monitor, you are facing it. This is a good angle. But nobody wants their light source coming from there, as it would cause glare and make it hard to read the screen. So the picture is backlit and weird looking. Or you can put the webcam on the side, but then the angle is odd as far as the Sci-fi idea of visual communication goes. Also, looking at people typing on their computer is not the most exciting image in the world. Unless they were naked or something. But there seems to be a sort of greenish pall that would hinder that. And most people I encounter, online or off, I don’t want to see naked. Maybe if I kept being IMed by 18-34 year old lesbians, but so far I think it’s all guys. There is something strangely fascinating about it though. It’s voyeristic, sort of, especially since I don’t have a webcam myself. It’s like watching somebody broadcasting live from their living room. People jokes this is what the TV show Big Brother was all about. People were getting so voyeristic they just wanted to watch each other living life on TV. At least with a webcam, there’s some back and forth chatting.